Among all the accomplishments of his astonishing career, Stephen Sondheim will be remembered most for this iconoclastic wonder; a musical comedy about a serial killer. And don’t get fooled about this: though there are elements of drama, horror and even opera, what makes Sweeney Todd the marvel that it is, is the huge gust of cosmic laughter which sweeps through it. Without the music (which is Sondheim’s) and the comedy (which is principally the invention of the British playwright Christopher Bond) Sweeney Todd is nothing more than a staged version of a mid-nineteenth century penny dreadful called A String of Pearls. Director Toby Orenstein understands this principle and, while not stinting on the other ingredients, seasons this fine production with plenty of wit.
That she stages this story of the collaboration between a murderer and a meat-pie baker in her own dinner theater – Toby’s of Columbia – is just another chuckle for the cognoscenti. She even offers her own version of a meat pie – delicious, on a sweet crust and flavored with a smoky, tangy barbecue – between the baked ziti and the delectable roast beef. Members of the ensemble scurry to get us drinks. Moments later, they will appear on stage as the scum of London: pickpockets, thieves, contract killers. Andrew Horn, who will play the terrifying sycophant Beadle Bamford, is in the middle of the floor, calling out anniversaries and birthdays and reminding us to turn off our cell phones. We are warm and secure; safe enough to laugh at the concept of violent death. And then the lights go down.
Sweeney Todd (Russell Sunday) has come back to London after being found by Anthony, a British sailor (Jeffrey Shankle) clinging to a raft. He has a secret, though: years ago he was a young barber named Benjamin Barker, with a wife and infant child and a shop on Fleet Street. Judge Turpin (David Reynolds), a despicable local power-mongeror, lusted after the wife. To secure his concupiscent objectives, the Judge had Barker wrongfully convicted of a crime and transported to Australia for life. He has only now escaped.
To hear, as Paul Harvey would have said, the rest of the story, Sweeney returns to his old haunts, where Mrs. Lovett (Lynne Sigler), the not-entirely-disinterested owner of the pie shop beneath his former tonsorial palace, fills him in. With Barker gone, the Judge raped his wife, who took poison in response. With both parents gone, baby Johanna (as an adult, Jessica Ball) becomes a ward of the Judge – who, Sweeney later learns, intends to marry her.
Sondheim once compared Sweeney to Hamlet and observed “Hamlet can’t quite take the action, so he is consumed in an existentialist way, Sweeney in a very active way, but they’re people who get destroyed by their need for revenge, in both cases justified.” But Sweeney is not Hamlet, who struggled to identify the guilty with certainty and then to revenge himself only upon his Uncle. To Sweeney, killing the Judge and the Beadle are insufficient. Everyone is guilty, and everyone must die: “Not one man, no/Nor ten men/Nor a hundred/Can assuage me,” he sings in “Epiphany”. “And I will get him back/Even as he gloats./In the meantime I’ll practice/On less honorable throats. “
If Sweeney is a monster, Mrs. Lovett is, at bottom, an economist: she understands the law of supply and demand. She can’t afford the meat she needs to make her pies. Even the source of meat her principal rival uses – cats – is too expensive for her. But as long as Sweeney is pursuing this homicidal hobby…And this is the great joke that runs through the play and animates the production: that the human flesh of lower-class Londoners is more affordable (and apparently tastier) than beef, and thus their highest and best use is in her pies. The moment that Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett apprehend that the roughhewn men who seek a quick and smooth shave from Sweeney might turn out to be the best pies in London is a comic masterpiece.
That this moment is at once so horrifying and so funny in this production is gold-standard evidence that director Orenstein knows her material. The actors know it too, especially Sunday, who is a marvelous Sweeney. He does not make the mistake of those actors who play Sweeney as a tortured soul. Sunday’s Sweeney is not tortured until his horrifying discovery at the end of his play; up until that point, he is a man who has found, in the slitting of throats, his mission in life.
Sweeney Todd has its roots in melodrama, where character development is unimportant, but the principal actors have all created three-dimensional men and women, albeit men and women with tunnel vision. If only Sweeney would give up his dream of revenge, Sigler’s Mrs. Lovett sighs, they could live happily ever after together, supplying London with meat pies and buying discount furniture for their home. If only Johanna would stop looking at romance so romantically, frets Reynold’s Judge Turpin, she would be forever safe and happy with me (and why not, as he is the greatest danger to her happiness?) And so it goes on, with the evil among us blissfully unaware of their own hatefulness, even as perhaps we are of ours.
In addition to drawing every ounce of wit and cynicism from this gorgeous musical, Orenstein brilliantly stages the entire 21-person production in a space barely adequate to fit six steam tables for dinner service. The trick barber chair Hal Prince made famous in his original production, with its magic chute into the bakehouse, is an impossibility here, but the uncredited chain-and-pulley substitute is more than sufficient. The production wisely avoids the circus-style makeup that Tim Burton inexplicably put on Johnny Depp in the movie version; here, with his abundant hair pulled back, Sweeney’s face looked like a blunt instrument. Lynn Joslin’s excellent lighting plot helps this effect.
Sweeney Todd is a festival of bass voices, and Sunday’s Sweeney, along with Reynold’s (horrifying, disgusting, sentimental) Judge are more than equal to the challenge. In fact, except for Lawrence Munsey, who is a little out of range as the blackmailer Pirelli, every voice is beautiful, and beautifully attuned to every other voice. Of course, having Christopher Youstra as Musical Director is the closest thing to a guarantee of terrific music.
Soaring above all the other superb voices, though, is that of Jessica Ball, whose operatic soprano fills dark London with light, and makes our hearts fill with optimism and the hope of redemption. That is true, incidentally, even when she shoots her jailer in the chest.
Sweeney Todd TOP PICK!
Book by Hugh Wheeler; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Adapted from a play by Christopher Bond of a story originally published as “A String of Pearls” by Thomas Peckett Prest
Directed by Toby Orenstein
Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra
Produced by Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
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